Eminent religious leaders of various faiths joined together with the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Sumitra Mahajan, India’s Minister of State for HRD, Satyapal Singh, Member of Parliament Meenakshi Lekhi, at the “She is the Solution: The Summit of Grace” conference during the 2019 Kumbh Mela, to speak on various topics concerning women empowerment, education and sanitation with a special focus on ending child marriage and improving menstrual hygiene.
Over 500 spiritual and political leaders, students and sanitation workers from across the country took a pledge for a safe and secure future for girls and women in India, in which they not only survive but thrive.
The morning started with a roundtable discussion and was followed after lunch by the main inaugural session of the Summit which was organized under the auspices of the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance (GIWA) and Parmarth Niketan, with technical support from the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) and UNICEF, to support the efforts of the Department of Women and Child Development, Government of Uttar Pradesh.
Mahajan said in her speech that child marriage is a dangerous burden.
“A girl who is not physically or mentally ready, is not mature and does not understand the world must not be burdened with marriage. I come from a humble background but I was inculcated with values that we must not do onto others what we would not like to be done unto us. Hence, let us ensure proper nutrition, education and sanitation of all women and girls. Our ‘shakti’ doesn’t need empowerment from someone else; they need to recognize that they themselves are the power,” she said.
Speaking on the occasion, Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswati, President of the Parmarth Niketan and Co-founder of GIWA, said, “This is a very historic coming together. We are at the Sangam to come together to address issues troubling our world. Kumbh is great. It should become a ‘Mela with a Message’. Today we are here to break our silence and to stand together against child marriage and say yes to education and sanitation of our girl child. As a united creation of faith leaders, our faith leaders are those who are present in life no matter what and they are here today. ‘She’ is the change; so, let us become the change and bring the change.”
Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswatiji, Secretary General for Global Interfaith WASH Alliance, said, “We celebrated of Republic of India on the 26th but today we commemorate and remember the Republic of Women of our Mothers. As India became free of colonization so our women and girls need to be free from violence, inequality, stolen childhoods and lack of sanitation. The power of faith changes how people think and how people act. We are the solution that ails our societysuch as child marriage, violence against women, menstrual hygiene.”
During the summit, 10 female Kumbh Mela sanitation workers were honored with sarees and 15 community champions were felicitated with certificates and a shawl. Dr. Rita Bahuguna Joshi, Minister of Women and Child Development, Government of UP, urged women and girls across the state to seize the initiative.
“Women and girl must take pride in themselves. Only then will society change,” she said. As the Minister of Tourism for the state, she warmly welcomed everyone to the Kumbh Mela.
As the roundtable session came to a close, Sue Coates, Deputy Executive Director, WSSCC, offered a summation: “I don’t wear the robes of the distinguished women and men around the table. I know in my heart the movement cannot be stopped. No matter how you arrive at the Kumbh, you see children along the road, and often a little girl. Until we reach into the heart of that little girl, then she can’t take responsibility for her life.”
Satyapal Singh, India’s Minister of State for Human Resource Development, lauded GIWA for raising the issue of child marriage through faith leaders who are spiritual guides to millions.
“Our education should be such that it should give information and inspiration. It should educate us and also culture us, inculcating our future generation with values,” he said.
The summit paid special attention to the issue of gender-based discrimination. The participants discussed at length on their role in ensuring equal treatment of girls and boys in the community, with a special focus on Uttar Pradesh where one in every five girls is a child bride. Twenty districts in UP have a higher incidence of child marriage than the national average of 27%.
The summit reinforced the fact that while regressive cultural norms were responsible for the prevalence of child marriage, there was no religious basis for the practice.
The summit also honored champions who successfully prevented child marriage within their communities, including Rekha, a digital awareness champion, who fought to prevent her own marriage and Lalmani Vishwakarma, a father who defied societal pressure to protect his children from child marriage. Both these champions belong to Shrawasti, which has the highest child marriage prevalence in India at 68.5%.
Among the other highlights of the summit was the launch of a video combining the voices of widely respected faith leaders, united against child marriage, as well as a live performance by Meri Zindagi – one of UP’s first all-women rock bands. On the sidelines of the summit were stalls featuring interactive games which subverted regressive gender norms and advocated for equal treatment of boys and girls.
The summit concluded with all participants taking a pledge to take the message of ending gender-based discrimination and child marriage back to their followers in the community.
The pledge was followed by ‘Sangam Aarti’ on the banks of the Sangam.